Australia’s Education Minister Simon Birmingham recently made the blindingly obvious observation that most students “first and foremost” go to university in the hope that a degree will secure them a decent job. He followed this up by making the apparently not-so-obvious point that universities might have some kind of responsibility in ensuring that their graduates do in fact find a “decent job”.
Speaking to the Australian Industry Group, the Minister said he wanted to encourage excellence in innovation in universities – and the measure of that excellence “has to be employment outcomes for graduates, and the achievement of those employment outcomes …”
His comments come at a time when the call that there are too many graduates chasing too few jobs increasingly is being made in Australia and elsewhere.
Recently the chief executive of Australia’s Group of Eight network, Vicki Thomson, said the uncapping of university places had caused a glut of graduates, and called for a slowing in the growth in places, arguing that “university isn’t for everyone”.
In a speech to the Graduate Employability and Industry Partnerships forum Thomson said there were “areas of significant graduate oversupply”, noting that in New South Wales alone there were 47,000 people seeking work as full-time teachers, almost as many as currently employed by the education department.
Other commentators have pointed to “graduate over supply” in fields such as journalism, marketing, teaching, pharmacy, dentistry and medicine, with universities resembling “overpriced degree factories”. And in The Australian Financial Review Frank Carrigan said that universities were turning out 15,000 law graduates each year in a market of 66,000 solicitors.
Further, a study conducted by researchers at Flinders University found that while university graduates continued to enjoy better labour market outcomes than other groups, an increasing number were stuck in part-time work and that, in the short-term at least, supply was outstripping demand.
Meanwhile, the Grattan Institute’s Mapping Australian Higher Education 2016 revealed that many recent science and information technology graduates were failing to find full-time work at a time when science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education is a priority for government and industry:
“Among recent science graduates who found full-time jobs, only half say their qualification is required or important for their job – about 20 percentage points below the average.”
It’s a similar story in the UK, where the government is being urged to end the drive to get more people into university following research that showed graduates are “colonising” jobs in banking, education, the police and real estate that were the preserve of school-leavers in the past.
The Guardian reported that the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development said getting more young people into higher education was no longer justified given student debt and that more than half of graduates take non-graduate jobs.
The CIPD said the current system was “not just bad for many of those who had been to university but also for school-leavers who were overlooked for jobs that did not require a degree”.
It added that in 1979 around 12% of young people in the UK were involved in higher education, but this figure had risen fourfold to 48% by 2014-15.
Against this backdrop, and if the figures are to be believed, Minister Birmingham’s move to put more responsibility on to universities for the numbers they graduate makes complete sense.
But we should note that all of the above represents just one way of looking at the situation.
Another view can be summed up in the words of Macquarie University deputy vice-chancellor Professor John Simons as reported in The Guardian Australia.
Simons, saying the idea universities could produce too many graduates was “frankly bizarre”, said the fact that some jobs now required degrees meant those jobs and the complexity of the context in which they were done was changing.
Students studying law might not intend to become lawyers but undertook the degree to improve their employment choices.
“This is the same old argument that was around in the UK over 30 years ago when mass education was introduced – a student said when she wanted to study English her father asked what she would do for work, open an English shop?”
“Nobody ever considered that an argument against mass education then. It’s a strange and bizarre intervention now.”
Is Simons right?